The Spirit of Aloha and Meaningful Knowledge

June 22, 2015

In which members of the Penn Hawai’i Club tour the archives, make plans for speaking in the fall for Second Sunday Culture Films, and later visit with Oceanian Section Keeper Adria Katz.

In early June two students from the Penn Hawai’i Club visited with Adria Katz, Keeper of the Oceanian Collections, to view the Hawai’ian collections of the Penn Museum. The trail that led to this visit began with the Museum Archives, where we were pulling together speakers for next fall’s Second Sunday Culture Films series, and were happy to meet Penn Hawai’i Club member Alexander Simafranca.

The series opener will be two films about traditional Hawai’ian culture as expressed in a current day context. One film is about a legendary woman, Rell “Kapoliokaʻehukai” Sunn, who brought women’s surfing back to Hawai’i after many years of repression by missionary activity. The second film is about the traditional Hawai’ian acceptance of people between two genders, something akin to the two spirits traditions of Plains people. [Film program details, below].

alex nicole adria and ukeleleAfter meeting in the Archives, Alexander asked about seeing the Museum’s Hawai’ian art and artifacts as well. (All Pacific collections have been in storage since the Polynesian Gallery was taken down in 2009.) Alex, fellow Hawai’ian club member Nyckolle Lucuab, and I arranged to meet Adria in the Mainwaring storage wing.


The first object that Adria pulled was a ukulele, dated to the late 1800s. The students studied it closely, noting that it was smaller than the ukuleles they were used to seeing. (It is probably a soprano ukulele, which usually measures around 51 cm long.) There are three scenes etched into the top of the sound box, one of which Alexander immediately recognized as Diamond Head, the volcanic mountain which can be clearly seen from Waikiki Beach in Honolulu. There are also sketches of a well-known pier and a rising sun with an ocean liner in the foreground. “G.C.S. Aug. ’89” is inscribed on the side, as well as the monograms CFP and UP [U Penn?] on the top. Inside the sound box is a sticker with the name of the maker, Manuel Nunes, one of the earliest ukulele makers in Hawai’i. Nyckolle noted the familiar address of his place of business: 46 Hotel Street, Honolulu H.I.

The students then viewed some pestles (some of which they recognized as having been made on the island of Kauai), a carved bird that looked like an ‘iwi bird, and a sinker, in which Alex spotted veins of olivite, making it likely that the volcanic stone originated on the Big Island. Next were old wood poi bowls (umeke poi), made of kou wood (Adria looked this up later) and with multiple native mends. Also viewed were pieces of bark cloth, and – the grand finale – a feathered cape and cloak. Nearly every object that we saw provided wonder to us all and was illuminated by comments from Alexander and Nyckolle.


The film series also benefits from the profound cultural knowledge of its speakers. For the October Hawai’ian program, we are very grateful for the contributions of Alexander, a graduate of the internationally known Kamehameha Schools (Kapalâma Campus) which specializes in the dissemination of traditional Hawai’ian culture, as well as Penn Museum’s Bill Wierzbowski, Keeper of the American Collections and an expert in two spirits traditions.

To get in the spirit of Hawai’i and aloha, save the date for the season opener of Second Sunday Culture Films

Details:  Sunday, October 11, 2015, 2 pm

Two films expressing the spirit of aloha, traditional Hawai’ian values.  Speakers: Bill Wierzbowski, Penn Museum, and Alexander Simafranca, The Penn Hawai’i Club.

Place in the middle
Place in the middle

A Place in the Middle (Dean Hamer, Joe Wilson, 2014, 30 min). A young girl who dreams of leading her school’s all-male hula troupe is inspired by her transgender native Hawai’ian teacher, who knows what it’s like to be “in the middle.”


Rell Sunn surfing
Rell Sunn surfing

Heart of the Sea (Lisa Denker, 2002, 50 min). Called a “love poem to Hawai’i’s matriarchal heritage,” this documentary tells the legend of surfing pro and cultural heritage and breast cancer activist Rell “Kapoliokaʻehukai” Sunn.



(Thanks go to Adria Katz for the visit, her notes, and research).

Photos by Kate Pourshariati